Composite image with a drawing of a face on the left and the names of colors on the right

How you see

Topic

Those of us who are sighted rely immensely on our visual system to know and understand the world. Vision even impacts our other senses: How food looks, for instance, changes how tasty we find it (i.e., red food is often perceived to be sweeter than other food).

Now think about how much vision impacts your day-to-day interactions with other people. Whatever else we may be experts at (cars, birds, wine), we are all super-experts when it comes to one particular object in our world – the human face. Each of us sees thousands of faces over the course of our lives, and the brain even has a region dedicated to facial recognition. But the visual world is not perceived directly – our perception of what we are seeing is only as good as the inferences we make about the world based on past experience. And sometimes these inferences, grounded in the biology of our visual system and our experience, just fail us. Was that job candidate actually not qualified, or did you make an incorrect assumption based on the configuration of the features of their face, something you weren’t even aware of?

Here, you will learn about visual biases so that you can make better decisions in life and at work. The good news is that once we know our vision is fallible, we can, to some extent, work to recognize when it might be leading us astray. We can question our intuitions. We can even act in opposition to them.

Learn about how our vision impacts our implicit bias and how we can outsmart it in this set of modules.

  1. Strooped!

    Video

    Most of us believe we can control what pieces of information influence our decisions. But when it comes down to it, can we? The Stroop Test suggests: no. Try it for yourself.

    Dive deeper

    MacLeod, C. M. (1991). Half a century of research on the Stroop Effect: An integrative review. Psychological Bulletin, 109(2), 163-203.

    Frank Stanton, the then-president of CBS, said of the Kennedy-Nixon debate: “Kennedy was bronzed beautifully… Nixon looked like death.” The legendary debate changed the face of political media strategy, but was it warranted? A 2003 study by political scientist James Druckman suggests, yes. People were significantly more likely to think Kennedy “won” the debate when they watched it versus listened to it.

    Colors are one thing, but our decisions can also be influenced by something as insignificant as a single letter – whether we’re aware of it or not. Watch this video about how José Zamora dropped a single letter to gain a title, and read more about the research that shows how names can Stroop us.

  2. When seeing shouldn’t be believing: Illusions at work

    Video

    A common expression tells us that “seeing is believing”. But sometimes there are illusions at work, whether we’re looking at checkerboards, human faces, or resumes. Luckily, there are ways we can debunk them.

    Dive deeper

    There are illusions we all fall prey to, like Ted Adelson’s Checker-Shadow illusion or Roger Shepard’s table tops. But some perceptions vary from person to person. Remember this dress? Was it black and blue or white and gold? This simple question set fire to the internet in 2015. The real dress was black and blue… so why did some people see something so different? It turns out that the colors we “see” change depending on how our minds interpret the source of light in the photograph. Read more about the science behind the illusion at Wired.

    Just as a face labeled “Black” or “White” looks darker or lighter, or how a musician labeled a “natural” or a “hard-worker” sounds different, the name at the top of a resume can change how qualified we think a person is. To learn more, read our article Can women be biased against other women? and listen to our podcast Race bias in hiring: When both applicant and employer lose.

    “Some 51% of the employers who considered candidates individually chose an employee who had underperformed relative to the group. By contrast, only 8% of the employers who considered candidates side-by-side chose underperformers.” How does simultaneous evaluation help us see talent more clearly? Read more about the research at The Wall Street Journal.

    “Most companies say they want to attract a diverse workforce, but few deliver. The only solution may be a radical one: anonymity.” Find out how Silicon Valley is taking steps towards a more diverse workforce (New York Times).

  3. A group of diverse people

    How well can you read a face?

    Interactive

    Do you know what “competence” looks like? Try this quiz, based on Professor Alexander Todorov’s 2005 experiment, to learn what your impressions predict.

  4. About Face: How First Impressions Fool Us

    Video

    Our faces broadcast information about us: whether we’re smart, warm, trustworthy. How do these signals influence decision-making – and are they accurate?

    Dive deeper

    See more demonstrations of how faces influence our first impressions on the Perception and Judgment Lab’s website. Dr. Todorov’s book Face Value: The Irresistible Influence of First Impressions was published in 2017 by Princeton University Press.

    “People are convinced that more competent-looking business people are more valuable, and they get higher salaries,’ [Professor Christopher] Olivola explained, even though the companies don’t perform any better under their leadership”. From James Hamblin’s article in The Atlantic: The Introverted Face.

    “After his mugshot sent the Internet into a frenzy, the 32-year-old received modeling offers. Fundraising efforts and Facebook groups were created for Meeks”. From the Los Angeles Times’ Veronica Rocha: “‘Hot Felon’ Jeremy Meeks released from federal prison and gets job offers”.

    A person’s face can even influence the medical care they receive: when clinicians watched videos of women undergoing painful examinations, Amanda Williams and colleagues found that they were less likely to recommend appropriate pain treatment for those who “looked” less trustworthy. Learn more at “The Conversation”.